Food truck sparking Auburn mobile-kitchen rules revamp

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - The great food-truck debate raging in communities across the nation has touched down in Auburn. With the trendy food truck craze continuing to challenge local-government rule-makers keeping one eye on established, brick-and-mortar businesses, a Maria’s Mexican Tacos truck has been setting up temporary shop in a handful of Downtown Auburn locations for several months. A well-known local restaurant at its own permanent location off Bowman Road, Maria’s branched out in the food-truck business under a license that allows it to open for no longer than 30 minutes at a time on private property. “Once we open our doors, we have 30 minutes at any one location,” said owner Maria Moreno. After that, the truck must move on. In the case of the mobile Maria’s location, it’s a quick drive across Lincoln Way from one parking lot to another. The eatery has agreements with three property owners to use parking-lot space. Now, Moreno said she’s working with city of Auburn planning and code enforcement officials on an addition to the Auburn Municipal Code that would allow the truck to stay at one location rather than be moved around every half hour. As rules currently stand, Maria’s faces a $100 fine if the truck is cited for vending for more than 30 minutes. “People like what we’re doing and I’m excited,” Moreno said. “I’m hoping to park it here the whole day.” The city Planning Commission was to have held a public hearing on the addition of mobile food vendor rules to city regulations. The commission is expected to consider the new regulations, which were pulled off this Tuesday’s agenda, at a hearing on Sept. 4. Bob Snyder, former Auburn mayor and a member of the Planning Commission said he became aware of concerns over the Maria’s truck and its potential impact on Downtown Auburn restaurant business earlier this year. His suggestion was to take a complaint to the city. “This issue has been going on for about five years (in other communities),” Snyder said. “It’s nothing new – trying to establish regulations that don’t exclude food trucks but make them abide by regulations, while making things a little fairer for businesses that have sunk capital into a site.” Snyder said that the demand is there for food trucks that have taken the concept of what were once lunch wagons serving pedestrian fare and turned it into a trendy way to buy a lunch. Gary Harwell saw the Maria’s truck Monday at noon while at a nearby bank and stopped in to place an order. “Are they killing business? It doesn’t look like it’s going to ruin the restaurant business in Auburn,” Harwell said. “Sacramento is having a lot of trouble with it. They’ve got two hours in one spot and then they have to move at least 700 feet.” Reg Murray, Auburn senior planner, said Maria’s rules are spelled out in its business license and there are no restrictions on how far the move has to be from one site to another. “Once they open their doors, they have 30 minutes at any one location,” Murray said. Bill Veerkamp, owner of Burney’s Old Fashion Hot Dogs in Downtown Auburn, said he sees both sides of the issue, having once operated from a food cart. Brick and mortar businesses have overhead costs like rent and utilities but the cost of a food truck includes everything from gas to actual payments on the vehicle, he said. From the Burney’s perspective, having a hot-dog truck parked in front of his store and charging less for hot dogs would likely be legal but a breach of what Veerkamp describes as an unwritten rule. Veerkamp said that it would be difficult to say whether the Maria’s truck has cost him business. “I do know that when ever she was at the same event as me, here food was so good, it would make a difference,” Veerkamp said. “I lovingly called her the hot-dog killer.” And while Maria’s wrestles with current business-license restrictions, another restaurant has found that a complaint-driven code enforcement system in a competitive economy reacts quickly. Ethan O’Hagan, Old Town Pizza general manager, said the business thought it had found a niche selling pizza at noon-hour to Placer High students outside Central Square’s Tango yogurt shop. The sales were ordered inside, where they were allowed, on a complaint from a nearby business. Taking the next step of establishing an Old Town Pizza food truck would be difficult, O’Hagan said. Auburn City Manager Bob Richardson said that the Maria’s food truck startup did spark several complaints. “We’re working with the community to find the right balance between locations and the desires of merchants in town,” Richardson said.